Wild On The Prairie: People

Midnats and Ola

Published Jan 7th 2001 in History & People

For 45 years the Midland Naturalists have written a monthly newsletter featuring the Llano Estacado's flora and fauna. The Sibley Nature Center has a complete set of all issues of The Phalarope. Academic scientists only pass through our homeland on their way to more dramatic locales such as the Guadalupe Mountains or Big Bend. Local amateur naturalists, such as the“Midnats,” perform the bulk of natural science observations in our region. Their tireless work is an act of love.

I have been a Midnat all my life. Observational natural science is my life, providing fodder for my professional work as an interpreter-naturalist. I am an amateur ecologist, sharing my love for the subject. I am not an environmentalist. Environmentalists preach a negative message about the destructive impulses of modern man -- a stylistic parallel to the fire and brimstone evangelist who mainly preaches to the choir. Although fear can be a motivator, it is neither the best nor the most efficient. In most cases, it is merely the brutal tool of the lazy and unimaginative.

This is a paean to all of the Midnats over the years. Diverse people of every economic status, political persuasion, and of many religious backgrounds, Midnats are united by a commonly shared joy. The "focus group club" is a grand pastime in the United States, proof of a tolerant and educated populace. People that join together with a common interest demonstrate inquisitive and creative minds, filling their lives with vim and vigor. They are not television zombies held in thrall every waking minute, senses deadened by the blaring drone.

Midnats know the cycles of the local natural world. All locales have a unique natural calendar, defined by the migration of bird or butterfly, or the bloom of a wildflower, or the emergence of a hibernating reptile or mammal. A person is not truly a citizen of their homeland until acquiring such awareness, remaining but a rootless visitor, blindly passing through. In agrarian times, most of the people of a region would know the signs of the calendar, but in modern times we unknowingly cast ourselves adrift.

We are creatures of the natural world. "God created every creature and plant, as well as humans, so we have no right to destroy rare habitats or to cause extinction," my salmon-fishing, bird-watching mentor, Peter Isleib, once told me. "If we do, we are insulting God."

Amateur naturalists such as the Midnats enter the most holy of all God's cathedrals when they fill their souls with intimate knowledge of the natural world so wondrously given to them. On the Llano Estacado, the beauty of our sunrises and sunsets are religious experiences. Take the time to honor such artistic power beyond compare. Ritualize moments of contemplation and meditation on the natural world.

Ecological knowledge provides a seamless connection to spirituality. The trumpeting of Sandhill Cranes, the lilting melody of a Cassin's Sparrow, the shimmering dance of Alkali Sacaton seedheads in the breeze, the grace of Pronghorn speeding at 45 mph ... the list of sights that bring joy, awe, and wonder goes on and on and on. The natural world takes us outside of ourselves, away from our worries, and allows us to transcend our usual self-centeredness. It is one of the most profound of God's gifts.

When I sat down to contemplate the shared experiences of Midnats over the years, I realized the group has been an extended family to me, much like a church prayer chain coming to the aid of a stricken parishioner.

While preparing this article I sat flipping through The Phalarope for an hour. Over 3000 pages chronicle so much. I wish everyone that lives here could have known some of the people that authored the short essays therein.

Until her death in the mid 1960's, Ola Dublin Haynes wrote often of her Bird Cafeteria on "D" Street. I do not know if any of her immediate family are still present in the region. She filled dozens of feeders daily -- seed feeders, watering basins, and even tiny pill bottles of syrup for warblers. The house contained an extensive library as well as a gallery of artifacts of the settling of the Llano Estacado. She imbued all that visited with a love of homeland. Even during the horrible dust storms of the 1950's Ola found beauty in the natural world.

"We three were titillated no end as we saw him feed the moth to his mate -- where does instinct end and love begin? I do not know, but on a searing, desiccating July afternoon, I would call this an act of love. Who could turn back after such a find? What a reward for going out under adverse circumstances!"

Ola celebrated openness to each and every moment. "Our instant halt immobilized us birders. The Lark Sparrow sat quietly, watchful but not frightened, his mouth full of the moth. We said we would just "sit him out." He thought he'd sit us out. The first fifteen minutes were the longest. He then flew to the dirt road in front of the car and walked about. For another fifteen minutes he paraded in front of us. For another fifteen minutes he paraded beside the car, and for another fifteen minutes behind the car, all the while with the moth (alive) in his mouth. Finally he entered a mesquite right by the tail light of the car."

Can you imagine doing as those three ladies did -- sitting in an unairconditioned car for an hour on a summer afternoon, waiting for a bird to do something with a moth in his mouth? What an act of love of the natural world!